Army officer was afraid for his life during a Virginia traffic stop, attorney says

Caron Nazario is seen in this still image from body camera footage holding his hands up before a police officer pepper sprays him during a traffic stop in December in Virginia. By Madeline Holcombe, CNN

(CNN) -- A US Army officer feared for his life when two Virginia police officers pointed guns at him during a traffic stop, his attorney said.

"He was terrified that if he was going to move his hands below where Officer Gutierrez could have seen them to undo that seatbelt, they would have murdered him," said Jonathan Arthur, attorney for 2nd Lt. Caron Nazario, who is Black and Latino.

The Windsor, Virginia, officers pointed guns at, pepper sprayed and pushed Nazario to the ground during the traffic stop last December. During the stop, the police officers believed the Army officer was missing a license plate on his new SUV.

Nazario has filed a lawsuit seeking $1 million in compensatory damages, claiming the two officers violated his rights guaranteed under the First and Fourth Amendments. The suit, filed in US District Court and first reported by the Virginian-Pilot, claims the officers used excessive force during the stop in December.

CNN has tried unsuccessfully to reach the officers, Joe Gutierrez and Daniel Crocker, for comment. It's unclear if they have legal representation. CNN has also reached out to Windsor Police Chief Rodney Riddle and Windsor town leaders for comment.

News of the lawsuit comes as demonstrators call for justice in the fatal shooting of Daunte Wright in Minnesota during a traffic stop and amid the trial of Derek Chauvin, a former police officer charged in the death of George Floyd.

Arthur said that Nazario had good reason to fear for his life. Guns were drawn when police approached his car, and officers gave him conflicting demands, he said. In body camera footage, Gutierrez is heard telling Nazario he was "fixin' to ride the lightning, son," which the lawsuit describes as a "colloquial expression for an execution," particularly in reference to the electric chair.

"You do everything right, you slow down, you submit to the authority of law enforcement, you do the right thing, you wait until a well-lit place to pull over you're on a dark road -- you don't want anybody to get hurt -- and then the officers turn around and repay your courtesy with this," Arthur said.

Late Sunday evening, Town Manager William Saunders confirmed to CNN that Gutierrez had been fired following an investigation into the incident launched because of the use of force.

Crocker is still employed by the police department, Saunders confirmed to CNN.

Attorney general requests information on the stop

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring on Monday sent a request for information to the Windsor Police Department (WPD), stating he is "deeply concerned" about the traffic stop.

In his letter, Herring called the manner in which the officers conducted themselves "dangerous, unnecessary, unacceptable and avoidable."

Herring's Office of Civil Rights is requesting, among others, any records or other documentation the Windsor Police Department has created regarding the incident that occurred between the officers and on December 5, 2020; personnel records for the two involved WPD officers, WPD policies related to use of force, traffic stops, de-escalation and engaging with members of the public; and complaints received by the WPD related to use of force for the last 10 years.

Speaking with CNN's Erin Burnett Monday evening, Herring said "the officers' conduct we saw in the videos, it was appalling, it was dangerous, and it's unacceptable. And people of color continue to experience brutality and being pepper sprayed, even killed at the hands of law enforcement, and it's got to stop."

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